The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing Henry County over the condition of the jail.

A federal judge is going to ask Henry County elected officials on Nov. 13 to prove they are taking steps to make the jail constitutionally safe.

As part of a special meeting Thursday, the Henry County Council welcomed comments from the public and from other local officials gathered in the county courthouse about a possible new income tax that is designed to help fix the jail situation.

Everyone agreed Thursday that Henry County’s jail is overcrowded. Everyone agreed that something must be done.

“We have to find answers,” Henry County Sheriff Ric McCorkle said.

Henry County’s jail was built to hold a maximum of 76 people. McCorkle said, by federal guidelines, a jail is deemed “overcrowded” at 80% capacity, meaning Henry County’s jail should have more than 60 inmates at one time.

McCorkle said there were more than 120 people in Henry County Jail Thursday.

An overcrowded jail puts inmates and correctional officers in danger. It also causes the building to wear down faster than it might otherwise.

If the federal magistrate does not agree that Henry County is doing enough, a panel of judges could force local officials to push through a plan, including regular penalties, or even just shut down the jail all together. Since Henry County would still be responsible for housing those inmates, that option would also continue to tax local residents.

During a two-hour long public hearing, members of the county council and county commissioners explained to the public how Henry County got to this point and why the officials are considering a new tax.

Changes in state law

Prior to 2015, people who had been convicted of low-level felonies in Indiana served their time in a prison. In 2015, Indiana lawmakers changed the law to reclassify non-violent felonies and aimed to keep these low-level offenders in their communities.

Which put more stress on the county jails.

Years before that, Indiana voters chose to cap their property taxes, meaning, among other things, county governments had to keep their jails safe and well-staffed but with a lower budget.

This year, Indiana lawmakers created a new income tax to give county leaders a way to directly address overcrowding and safety issues in local jails. The tax can be up to 0.2 percent and can last up to 22 years, according to the Henry County Council.

Funds collected from that tax could be used to build or update a new “correctional and rehabilitation facility” and to operate that facility, County Council President Susan Huhn said Thursday.

The split would be 80% for construction and 20% for operations.

The Henry County income tax could go into effect Jan. 1, if the council passes it during their next meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24.

Representatives from Baker Tilly told the council this new tax could generate $1.78 million each year for the county government to maintain and operate the correctional facility.

As several people, including sitting members of the Henry County Council, pointed out Thursday, any revenue to the county government first impacts citizens.

The Baker Tilly estimates are that the median Henry County household, with an income of $46,131, would pay approximately $7.30 each month under the new income tax.

A household making $75,000 would pay about $11.88 per month, and a $125,000 household would pay $19.79 per month.

Council discussion

“We have been meeting a great deal to discuss the problem we have right now with our jail,” Huhn said. “We want to provide constitutionally-adequate jail and a safe jail, with the least impact to the taxpayer as possible.”

Huhn said implementing a new tax would actually be “the most fiscally conservative thing” the council could do for Henry County citizens.

“I think not raising this tax and coming up with some type of temporary solution is going to cost the county a lot of money as we’re forced to make harsher decisions,” Huhn said. “My hope is that this tax gives us the time to do this the cheapest way possible to the taxpayer while we still have some control over it.”

One step the county has already taken to alleviate overcrowding at the jail has been to house some inmates three hours away in Elkhart County at $40 per day each

Sheriff McCorkle said the first 12 Henry County Jail inmates headed to Elkhart County Friday.

Council member Kenon Gray said moving 20 inmates to Elkhart will cost Henry County taxpayers about $400,000 a year.

Gray said Henry County is also reaching options to move in temporary “pods” to house local offenders. Each pod would cost more than $2 million. Gray said the county could use those same facilities later to help with mental help and addiction services.

The county is also researching ways to develop a local drug rehab and mental health treatment facility locally, possibly in The Guest House in New Castle.

Any solution will cost money.

“Without the tax, we have no funds to do something that would meet the requirements of the litigation that’s before us,” Gray said.

Gray said the county doesn’t have enough money in its “rainy day fund” to help. He pointed out that the council had already cut $1.8 million from the proposed 2020 budget.

“We’re operating day to day,” he said.

“We have cut until it hurts,” agreed council member Chad Malicoat. “I hate to say it, but this is the thing we have to do. This (jail tax) is our only option at this point.”

The council members said they struggled with the thought of raising taxes.

Member and former sheriff Harold Griffin said it kept him up the night before Thursday’s meeting.

Council member Clay Morgan read a prepared letter reflecting on previous taxes he has voted in place and plans he has helped research that could have saved Henry County “from this disaster.”

Morgan said the previous public safety income tax had been mismanaged after he and others sold taxpayers on the idea.

“I carry the weight of the past. I have agreed to projects that were presented one way and immediately distorted. The council can only raise the revenue. We cannot implement the plan,” he said.

Morgan asked for his letter to be included in the official meeting minutes.

Peg Stefandel said, “We can’t wait... We don’t have any choice.”

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Henry County Council is 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24 in the courthouse, 101 S. Main St., New Castle. The council is expect to vote on the proposed Correctional and Rehabilitation Income Tax at that time.

The county council also discussed Thursday renewing a $2 million bond, part of which could be used for repairs on the jail or other projects to help the jail situation. Coverage of that discussion will appear in Tuesday’s paper.

© Copyright 2020, The Courier-Times, New Castle, IN.